Whether it was Walt Disney or Max Fleischer or Warner Bros., animation thrived amidst the Great Depression of the 1930s. The best studios led by animation’s greatest visionaries churned out funny, inspiring, also messed up, and violent romps that packed theaters. They were casually offensive and, as Kill Screen describes them, “transportive, transformative, and massively fucked up.”
This Golden Age of Animation produced immortal icons like Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Superman, yet their distinct style and whimsy will be forever bygone. But what’s old can be new again, and Cuphead will lead that charge on PC and Xbox One later this year.
Developed by brothers Chad & Jared Moldenhauer who run Studio MDHR, Cuphead follows two anthropomorphic housewares — Cuphead is the primary avatar, while partner Mugman is playable in co-op — who make a losing deal with the devil and endure a hellish journey to repay the debt. The game crosses generations as it evokes ‘30s animation but plays like ‘80s and ‘90s side-scrollers and “run and gun” titles.
Though stunning, the game’s unique visuals started as a joke that evolved into wishful thinking.
“Nostalgia is a large part of why,” Chad Moldenhauer said in an interview with GamesRadar. “We initially only joked about having an art style like this – it seemed unreachable.” The director admitted to possessing “zero traditional animation” skills, but over time it became their white whale. They used mockups with Mickey Mouse, and suddenly there was no going back. “[O]ur friends told us that we shouldn’t even bother making the game unless we were going to use this style.”
On the game’s website, the creators tout traditional methods to create the game’s visuals. A mix of hand-drawn and cel shaded work permeate Cuphead with watercolor backgrounds and an original jazz soundtrack.
But unlike the more commonly-understood Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse shorts, Cuphead edges on the darker side of early 20th century animation. It’s less Steamboat Willie and more Swing You Sinners!
In fact, the brothers admit Cuphead stems from a 1936 Japanese propaganda film. In it, a twisted and maniacal Mickey Mouse invades an island, and among its defenders is a guy with a cup-shaped head who morphs into a tank. “We thought it was so odd,” the Chad half of the duo told Kill Screen. “I drew a couple versions of it and right away it stuck.”
But the game is also reminiscent of the ball-breaking challenge in retro games like Contra and Mega Man, which trip up younger gamers used to modern luxuries. (Have you seen teens play Mega Man? Their frustration is hysterical.) The game has already received early buzz for its difficulty, tripping up Polygon and Xbox exec Phil Spencer who advised the studio “to tone it down.” It’s unknown if the Moldenhauers heeded those words.
The game debuted at E3 2014 but presented a playable demo the next year. It was revealed the game will be made up almost entirely of boss battles to make use of “the minutiae of the genre: animations and exploits and hitboxes.” Polygon and Studio MDHR’s website have revealed a few of these unique bosses, and they are as random as they’re bizarre: giant carrots, pirates, boxing frogs, fedora-tipping giants, a blue testicle, and most likely the devil himself. There will also be hefty DLC post-release that will add weapons and more bosses, and ultimately Studio MDHR envisions a complete Cuphead trilogy.
But that’s a bit far into the future from now. Today, we can only look forward to Cuphead 1, a game unlike any other in 2016 which daringly proposes to take us back to ghostly days of yore.